The Upper Green River flows through the center of the 170,000-acre grazing allotment on the Bridger Teton National Forest. Photo George Wuerthner 

A federal court recently dismissed the lawsuit initiated by The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection to protect grizzlies in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming from the negative impacts of livestock grazing.

The decision will permit the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF) to go forward with its recent decision to renew a ten-year grazing permit on the 170,000-acre grazing allotment.

The Upper Green originates in Green River Lakes in the Wind River Range. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Upper Green allotment is the largest single Forest Service allotment in the West. It is the best wildlife habitat in the West and comparable to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

With the Green River running the length of the allotment, the area is dominated by sagebrush with clumps of aspen, willows, and conifer patches. Small tarns and tributary streams add to the diversity of the landscape.

Between 2010 and 2018 35 grizzly bears have been killed or removed from the allotment as a result of conflicts with privatly owned livestock utilizing public lands. Photo George Wuerthner

The area has seen increasing use by grizzly bears. Between 2010-2018, 35 grizzlies have been killed or removed from the site over conflicts with livestock. It is an example of where “problem livestock” are permitted to graze in the habitat of a listed Endangered Species, and the listed species is the animal that suffers when there are conflicts.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal (wife of former Governor Freudenthal) sided with the livestock permittees, Bridger Teton National Forest, and US Fish and Wildlife Service in concluding that continuation of the livestock grazing would not jeopardize the grizzly recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Judge agreed that the BTNF had adequate measures to reduce grizzly conflicts even though the FWS predicts that as many as 72 additional grizzlies might die or be removed in the next ten years.

The use of “range riders” to chase grizzlies from livestock and removal of carcasses are among the “aspirational” management proposals the BTNF says will reduce conflicts with grizzlies. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most of the proposed changes in grazing practices are “aspirational” rather than mandatory. In other words, they hope that ranchers will do this or that, and they hope that this will improve things for public lands.

From my prior experience as a BLM biologist and many reviews of western lands, I can assure you that such an assumption is questionable.

And even if there is some slight improvement, the FEIS also acknowledges that any modifications will be slow and incremental due to ongoing livestock grazing.

The Judge’s decision does not comport with grizzly bear expert, David Mattson viewpoint. He says in expert witness testimony that: (i) analyses pertaining to impacts on grizzly bears presented in the Upper Green EIS and supporting BiOP are patently inadequate and at odds with the best available science; and (ii) grazing operations and grizzly bear management planned under terms of the Upper Green EIS will needlessly harm not only individual grizzly bears and the GYE Yellowstone grizzly bear population, but also long term conservation of this population.” But it will likely change the local demographics of bears, and subsequent distribution and movements of bears in the Ecosystem and the potential loss of dozens of bears won’t hasten recovery of the animal. The Upper Green will be one more place that is a “sink” for the grizzly  population.

Without a doubt the on-going livestock operations and potential loss of grizzly bears will influence distribution, demographics, and overall recovery of the bear. That is hardily the goal for any ESA listed species.

 

Even though the BTNF management plan has designated 93% of the Upper Green as an area where wildlife are to be given primary in management decision, the majority of the allotment is degraded by on-going livestock use. Photo George Wuerthner 

I wrote extensive comments on the renewal plan for the allotment. In my remarks, I noted that the BTNF Forest Plan had categorized 93% of the area as DFC 10 and 12 status, where protecting wildlife values is the primary goal.

According to the BTNF’s assessment, most of the allotment is considered poor to fair condition. That means on much of the allotment, less than 50% or more of the species that should be abundant on the landscape, given their soil type, prescription, and so forth, are scarce to non-existent. That condition class is an indictment of the BTNF range management.

Many of the riparian areas aong the Upper Green River and its tributaries are degraded by livestock use. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Forest Service manages it as more or less a feedlot for a few local ranchers. Continued livestock grazing on the Upper Green allotment was harming and will harm sage grouse, amphibians, listed cutthroat trout, riparian areas, socially displacing elk, consuming vegetation that would otherwise support grizzlies, elk, and other herbivores/omnivores, polluting water, damaging stream banks, and hindering wildlife migration with fencing.

In addition, I countered the BTNF assertion that the renewal of the grazing permit was essential to the culture and continued economic stability of Sublette Country. But public land livestock grazing contributes almost nothing to Sublette County’s economy.

If all the ranchers using the allotment (a small subset of all ranching operations in the country) had to find forage elsewhere, it would barely be missed. From all sources, farm income in Sublette County accounts for only 1.2% of personal income. Over 400 farms or ranches in the county and less than a dozen ranchers graze the Upper Green Allotment. Thus, the percentage of income resulting from grazing the Upper Green River Allotment would be a fraction of even the 1.2% of income derived from Ag in the county.

Cow battered landscape in the Upper Green Valley. Photo George Wuerthner 

Furthermore, the continuation of livestock grazing on these public lands harms other economic interests and the landscape’s ecological function. The BTNF even admits as much. in the BTNF’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, the No Grazing alternative, which would have terminated livestock use of the area, had the most benefits and least impacts on dozens of resource values. In every instance, the No Grazing allotment would bring about more rapid improvement, more positive benefits, and better ecological outcomes than other grazing options. Indeed, the only negative impact reported would be on “traditional uses, “ a euphemism for livestock grazing.

Who is the BTNF working for when its analysis documents substantial impacts to public lands and resources, but they side with local economic interests to continue allowing the degradation of public lands. If this isn’t legalized vandalism, I do not know what is?

Sunlight on the Wind River Range from the Upper Green River Valley. Photo George Wuerthner 

If I were to spray paint a Forest Service sign, I could be arrested and charged with vandalism, but ranchers destroy public lands and water, kill endangered grizzly bears and suffer no consequences?

The Upper Green decision is a classic example of how the legal system benefits narrow economic interests. One of the problems with our laws is that degrading public property is not illegal. Environmental groups sued based primarily on impacts of grazing to grizzly bears because the Endangered Species Act makes explicitly contributing to a species decline illegal. But if grazing pollutes water, displaces elk, harms amphibians, fences block wildlife migration, damages riparian areas, and other impacts, none is unlawful.

And if the agency can assert that they plan to “improve” conditions, even if it’s a few percentage points over a hundred years, that is sufficient to win against any lawsuit.

Currently vacant Elk Ridge Grazing allotment adjacent to the Upper Green Grazing Allotment may be opened to cattle grazing which could lead to even more grizzly deaths. Photo George Wuerthner

A further area of contention is the proposal by the BTNF to reopen vacant allotments to cattle grazing in the Elk Ridge area that borders the Upper Green allotments, including a portion of the Gros Ventre Wilderness currently closed to livestock use.

Even if one can prove impacts on an ESA-listed species like the grizzly, any legal remedies could disappear if the species is delisted—which is likely to occur with the grizzly in the GYE.

The livestock industry’s continued degradation of the Upper Green’s public lands is a betrayal of public trust.

 

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

16 Responses to Decision to Permit Livestock Grazing in Upper Green Allotments Betrayal of Public Trust

  1. james catlin says:

    Thanks for the story. Is there a link to the court ruling? The law generally supports livestock use even if it violates the Forest Service definition of multiple use, “The management of all the various
    renewable surface resources of the national forests . . . (for the) harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources, each with the other, without impairment of the productivity of the land,. . .”
    The Forest Service admits impairment and they also admit that continued grazing would continue this impairment.

  2. Pamela W says:

    This is so disappointing and infuriating. How can our public processes be so corrupt and so ineffective??? And how the hell do we change them?

  3. Laurie says:

    DISGUSTED.
    On 60 Minutes (May 31, 2022):
    “Wyoming cattle rancher: We’re not in it for the money”

    60 Minutes should feature the truth behind the powerful and corrupt ranching lobby!

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      I watched that program. Things like that are how the myth that the ranchers should rule over the rest of us in the west and get first and second helpings on our public lands, are a big reason we have cattle everywhere in even the most precious places. Here in Idaho, the governor is rancher and the Lt governor, after this falls elections, will be a rancher too.
      In the case of this case in Wyoming, the federal judge was Nancy Freudenthal. She is the wife of the former governor of Wyoming Dave Freudenthal.
      In

  4. Mimi says:

    Is the case going to be taken to the Appeals Court? Could we outbid the ranchers for the grazing permits? What about disease transmission such as to the animals on the National Elk Refuge?

  5. Brian Cartier says:

    What is the dollar value of this lease? Can the decision be appealed? Can a different lawsuit be filed? Can land conservancy groups just buy up all these damaging leases?

    I feel terrible about what is happening there, and to so much of our National Forest land, but that land belongs to all of us, and it should be protected for all of us.

    You have described the problem very well, but what about avenues of redress?

  6. Shannon says:

    Sorry for the loss but thankful there is no compromise advocates fighting the ecocide in every way they can. The Judge seems to be sending the message the cattle industry rules the west like it did 100 plus years ago. It makes it appear our society is devolving rapidly to the law ruled by Caucasian bullies with guns.

  7. Michael Sauber says:

    Have anyone tried to make it legal to graze on public lands only if they have sufficient insurance to cover losses (from grizzleys, wolves)? Just bringing up the debate would be useful. The public has just assumed it is right to pay the poor rancher for depredation loss because we love wolves and want them on public lands.

    • Michael Sauber says:

      edit – HAS anyone….

    • Maggie Frazier says:

      Of course pay for their losses – but THEY dont pay us, the taxpayers, what it costs to run this program, much less, what the financial loss to the range entails!
      I think the insurance idea is a good one – not that it would be able to go anywhere, but because its one more GOOD question that taxpayers should ask. WE all have to cover OUR losses (cars, homes, etc) with insurance that WE pay for – why not them? If its too big an ask, then graze cattle on private lands & pay the full cost!

  8. Carolyn says:

    I think we can all live without beef. I for one does not buy beef. I live primarily on chicken which is my choice of meat. If I do buy any beef it is from a local farmer. But it has been several years since I have done that. If we all quit eating beef then what would they do?

  9. Ed Loosli says:

    I assume and hope that the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection will APPEAL this horrendous and unlawful court decision.

  10. Gary says:

    It sounds as though the judge needs to be educated as to the long term effects of his uneducated decision process. He is out of his range.Acting on behalf of cattle industry purely. A discrepancy of ignorance………

  11. Ralph Maughan says:

    Seems to me that they would be likely to overturn the decision since an appeal would take it out of the governor’s wife’s Wyoming federal court.

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